Sitting In The Mud
Have you ever sat in a foot and half of cold mud? Ever sat there with your hip broken? Sat there while the horse that fell with you leaps to her feet and scrambles up on the bank, kicking mud in your face, then looks back in amazement. And remains there while the pain in the hip lances through your leg like a fiery knife, hurting so damn bad that you can’t even cuss, let alone groan. So bad that all you can do is grit your teeth and grab for the bottom of the puddle so you don’t fall back into it and drown.
Well, there I was, in exactly that situation. I was sure the hip was broken. I was also so very alone. I had been riding trail on a twenty horse pack string, riding one of the best gaited mountain horses I’d ever ridden. Not that I am any kind of a horseman. I was raised around them but could always find an excuse to fall off. We had come to a mountain spring up on the hillside to the right, spreading its water into a 30 foot wide, near 2 foot deep puddle where the horse-trail crossed it. The string in front had waded across without problem. I should have known something was amiss when my horse hesitated at the edge. She suddenly leaped out into the middle, then slipped and fell to her right side. I was enough of a horseman to feel the fall coming and throw myself uphill out of the saddle. I anticipated getting a little muddy. Instead, my right hip hit a rock just under the surface of the mud. Suddenly I was sitting in the cold mud, the pain in the hip excruciating, unable to move. It was a lot deeper than it looked from atop the horse, about belly button deep.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, but it seemed like forever. Maybe it was the cold that froze away the pain, or maybe it was God’s good blessings that did, certainly I had a few words with Him in those moments, but eventually the pain subsided to the point that I dared to hope that the leg was not fractured but just bruised. I chanced moving it. It worked! And the pain didn’t get worse! Motion on the bank a few feet away caught my attention. The horse was there wagging her head at me, asking what in the heck I was doing sitting in the mud. The reins had fallen and she was flipping them around. One fell a few feet away. I rolled to the right and grabbed it, hoping to secure the horse before she could run off. It was an eight hour ride back to main camp and at least 4 hours to the proposed spike camp. It would be an impossible walk in either direction.
Next thing I knew, the horse pulled me up on the bank. I hung onto that rein for all my life as she backed away. She looked a little spooked by the mud covered pseudo cowboy that she had dragged out of the mud. I managed to get her tied to a sapling, then lay there while the pain in the hip subsided. Some grass sufficed to clean up a little. Then I spent half a lifetime getting to my feet, using a small quakie as a living crutch, the pain in the hip coming back with the effort. I spent the other half getting back into the saddle. Had to find a big rock first, then climb the rock then step into the saddle. I knew the horse knew the way and turned her loose. Naturally she wanted to catch up with the string and tried to break into a trot. I couldn’t stand the pain from bouncing in the saddle and pulled her into a walk.
An hour later, the wrangler showed, galloping down the trail, looking worried. He figured I was grizzly bait. His worry turned into a laugh when he saw me covered in drying mud. Another hour and we reached the rest of the string, the two guides, the other hunter, cook and all 19 horses snoozing in the shade. Another two hours and we were in camp, a lovely river running close by.
I spent the next two days lying in a tent, barely able to move. I had a big bruise over the hip and so much pain in the hip that it was decidedly hard to get up, even to empty a full bladder. The solution to that was not to drink much. I couldn’t get to the cook tent anyway.
The morning after the fall I awoke to an empty camp. I was alone. The others, including the cook and wrangler, had left to find a moose for the other hunter. I had found some Percocet and a muscle relaxant in my kit and spent the day in woozy dullness. The pain was bad enough that I didn’t even get up to eat and had nothing to drink. When nightfall came, I was still alone, not that it mattered. The other hunters were obviously delayed on the trail.
There was a good moon that night. I awoke long after dark with the sensation that something was awry. The door to the tent was wide open and the moonlight quite lovely. Just out side the tent was a smallish grizzly, maybe a two- three year old bear, probably 400 lbs. He was quite pretty, the bright moonlight glistening on his silver tipped coat. He was looking right at me, trying to see what was in the tent. I was full of Percocet and muscle relaxants and was feeling no pain, or anything else for that matter. Maybe the bear was an hallucination. I had my 504 caliber White Super Safari at my bedside, loaded with 120 grains of Arco powder and a 435 grain saboted bullet, so I had little to fear.
I told the bear to stop where he was. He was only 6-8 feet away, nearly at the door of the tent. I told him out loud, ’one more step and I’ll dust your butt’ I meant it. I’d already killed a far bigger brown bear with a rifle like this, and knew I could do it again. The bear looked insulted for a moment, then carefully stepped one step back then slowly turned to the right, looking at me the whole time. ‘I mean it’, I said. I had the rifle in hand now. The bear slowly dropped his head to the ground, sniffed then took several steps. He turned, keeping his head towards me all the time, and walked a dozen steps to the left but away a little, then turned to the right and repeated the performance, each step taking him away a little further. I suddenly realized hat he was preserving his dignity, sending me the message that he wasn’t afraid but was satisfied to leave on his own terms. He disappeared around a bush. There was the thudding sound of a heavy running body, then silence. Well, maybe he was real and maybe he was an hallucination. I’d check for tracks in the morning and find out. Back to sleep.
Daylight. Heavy bodies and thudding feet in my head. The whole packstring had come back to camp and were looking for a bait of grain. They crowded around the tent, looking to the only guy in camp for their morning ration. Whinnies, kicks and bites as they battled for place and attention. They weren’t going to get anything from me. I could hardly get anything for myself. Darned critters were destroying my bear tracks as well. Now I ‘d never know whether the bear was real or not.
Along about mid-morning, the others showed, riding in with a 55 inch moose tied onto a packhorse. Well, not the whole moose. They had killed the moose just at dark then spent the night defending their kill against a big grizzly that wanted to horn in. They built two big fires and spent the night watching eyes in the night. The grizzly took over after they left with meat and horns.
By this time I was up. I cut myself a walking stick and hobbled to the cook tent. Cookie had breakfast going. I asked the wrangler to look for grizzly tracks but he couldn’t find any. The horses had torn up the ground too much, he said. It was nice to have some company.
Next morning I was well enough to go hunting. The hip still hurt like heck but was tolerable. After breakfast in the dark, we rode up into the mountains off to the north, up into caribou country. Riding up the mountain wasn’t bad, I would discover later that coming back down was another question again. A two hour ride took us as far as the horses could go with their heavy loads. We tied them nose to tail and hiked the rest of the way. I used my walking stick in one hand and the rifle in the other as a crutch. The pain was pretty bad but if I went slow I could get along. The guide spent the day way out in head. About the time I would hobble up to his position, he would have the country glassed and every critter identified. I had to ask him to slow up so I could keep up with him.
On the third day, he spotted some bulls that looked promising. They were on the far side of a big canyon and way up on the mountain above us. As before, we rode as close as we could then proceeded on foot. A two hour stalk brought us to the canyon edge. The bulls were 250 yards or so across the canyon, lying down. chewing cuds. The guide offered to get me closer, proposing to take me on a long hike down and around the canyon for an approach from the opposite side. I was hurting enough that I turned him down. I was happy to rest there, using his pack for a rest, watching the bulls through the spotting scope.
These were Mountain caribou, somewhat smaller in average size than the bigger Alaskan Barren Ground caribou that I had hunted before. I had lived in Alaska for a few years and we hunted them for meat. I had better than a dozen in my memory, in fact about 2 dozen, including both meat animals and trophies.
One of the bulls was bigger than the others and was acceptable. He wasn’t the biggest bull on the mountain by a long shot but was good enough for this tired old man. I decided to try for him if the opportunity was right. I told the guide so. It was clear that he didn’t think I could do it. He had never seen a muzzleloader shot of more than a hundred yards in his life. I didn’t tell him that I had been shooting the rifle all summer, at ranges of up to 350 yards. I had sighted the rifle in at 140 yards, and knew that the bullet would be a foot low at 200 yards and 20 inches low at 250. I also had a dead rest and was well rested after a couple hours watching the bulls.
The afternoon waned. The bulls finally got up and began to feed. There were a few moments of confusion as the bulls crisscrossed in front of each other. Finally they separated , feeding slowly along. The biggest bull was now about 240 yards away, a little closer than before. I waited until he turned, presenting a side shot. My goal was to take the big arteries off the heart.
I was shooting a White PowerStar 45 caliber, 435 grain, hollow pointed, pure lead spitzer bullet, in a channelured sabot, both of my design, in my 504 caliber White Super Safari rifle. It was capable of inch and a half groups at 100 yards. Muzzle velocity was right at 1550 FPS. I figured the fall at 18-20 inches at 240 yards. The bullet had a BC of .30 and I knew that energy would be better than1200 ft lbs at that range. I also knew the bullet to be an excellent killer, much more so than muzzleloading velocities would indicate.
The rifle was equipped with a Burris 3 X 9 scope. I dialed the power up to 6 and settled the rifle over the guide’s pack. I put the crosshairs across the bulls back, caught my breath and squeezed the trigger. Damn, forgot the double safety. I had put it on Super-Safe while I hiked. Well, at least it didn’t go ‘clack’ like some of the competitors guns when you forget the safety. The muff was at least silent.
I pulled the secondary safety off, and settled back into shooting position. crosshairs once again across the bulls back. The rifle boomed. I heard the big bullet hit the bulls chest, knew it had because of the solid “wop”it made. Somebody once called my big bullets ‘Italian Specials’ because of the ‘wop’ they make when they hit an animal’s chest. The bull went over in a heap, legs in the air. ‘Tits up’, as the locals say.
“You ‘it ‘im, ” exclaimed the guide in his Canadian accent, disbelief in his voice. He had obviously not believed that I could do it. He said it a second time, then glanced at me and grinned, a little embarrassed because of his lack of faith in his hunter. A realist, I thought, he just didn’t know what White rifles are capable of.
We spent the next few hours gutting and caring for the bull. I spent most of it just getting across the canyon while the guide did the work. We took some pictures, the look on my face testifying to the distress in my hip. Then came the ride down the mountain, the horses always in a rush to get back, me trying to keep mine to a walk, my hip stabbing me with a fiery flame with every lurch and hop.
We got back to camp well after dark. The other hunter had come in with a bigger caribou, a pretty fine one, in fact. He was quite proud. I was proud of him too. He had been injured in a motorcycle accident some years before and had a frozen right forearm. Despite the disability and the challenge, he was a fine, tough hunter, now very left handed.
Cookie had a great Dutch oven meal ready. I hit the sack early. I was exhausted. No more bears this night!
Next morning we hit the trail for home, that is, the main camp. It was a 12 hour ride. Once again, the horses knew they were going back to good times and lit out with vigor and dispatch. We skirted the spring mud puddle, wading the crick below it instead. My horse didn’t have a problem with the water. I had a problem with the horse though. The jouncing and bouncing raised holy hell with my hip. I wasted a lot of energy trying to keep the pain to a tolerable level. By the time we reached main camp, I was once again exhausted. I hit my cot, (what luxury, a cot) without supper and slept until morning.
I awoke to find the outfitter, Duane Nelson, kneeling at cot-side. He looked very concerned, really a very nice guy. He inquired as to the state of my health, the pain, its location, could I ride a horse? Ride a horse? The last thing in the world I wanted was another ride on a horse. The last thing he wanted was a hunter not killing a moose. He was 100% for the last ten years and didn’t want to break the record.
He reminded me that there were three days left in the hunt, time to take a leisurely ten hour ride into a near by (Near-by? Ten hours? Near-by?) Valley where he knew there were big moose. He hinted that this was the ‘honey-hole’ a place he saved for only the finest clients. He would supply the finest gaited single foot horse in his string, one he alone rode from time to time. His voice dripped with honey. I was reminded of Satan tempting the Lord during His 40 day fast.
“Go ahead, throw yourself off this cliff. Surely the angels will catch you”. Unfortunately, I did not have the gumption to tell “Satan’ to get behind me. I fell for the bait. His horse was waiting, saddled and ready to go, outside the tent. So was the packstring, guide and wrangler.
Inside of an hour we were on our way. The single foot horse was wonderful, taking three steps forward for every two behind, or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, it was the smoothest ride I have ever enjoyed on a horse. My hip did fine.
We made the ten hours with only a single stop for water and lunch, arriving in the valley well before the late September sundown. There were monster bull moose in every direction, at least a half dozen groups scattered across a wide valley covered with low brush and willows. A small alluvial stream wandered here and there.
The closest herd was about 800 yards away, milling about on a low hill. Quick use of the glasses showed a big bull with about 12-15 cows and several smaller bulls trying to horn in. They were paying us no attention. I estimated the bull would go about 60 inches. He turned out to be almost exactly that.
The wrangler, to his great disgust, was detailed to unload the horse and set up camp, a single tent. He would also get a fire and supper going while the guide and I stalked the bull. We rode the horses to within 200 yards, staying out of sight in the tall willows, a low hill lending us cover.
Once off the horses, we snuck over the top of the hill, creeping through the willows, trying to be as silent as possible. We came into view at about 60 yards. Every moose in the herd was looking straight at us. They could obviously hear better than we could creep. The bull was surrounded by cows. There wasn’t a shot to be had.
The herd moved off to the right, starting up the slopes of the mountain in the background. They didn’t seem terribly alarmed, just moved off at a walk. The herd scattered a little with the move, but the bull artfully kept cows between him and me. Still no shot. I would have to wait until the cows left his side.
I looked around for a rest. There wasn’t a tree in sight, only chest high willows. This was going to have to be offhand. The Super Safari was loaded with the same 120 grains of Arco but now a 600 grain Super Slug had taken the place of the lighter saboted bullet. This .30 BC bullet would leave the muzzle at 1350 fps and would have roughly 1600 ft lbs of energy left at 200 yards.
The bull had stopped, now about 170 yards away, quartering uphill, hips lower than fore-quarters, head turned looking back at me. The screen of cows parted. I heard the guide suck air. Guess that was my signal. I threw up the rifle, assumed my best offhand stance, put the crosshairs on the bulls rear ribs and touched the trigger. Once again there was that solid ‘Wop”, closely behind the boom of the shot. Dust and dirt flew from the bull, the big bullet hitting him exactly as planned. His legs buckled and he dropped into the brush, out of sight. The guide blurted’ “You did it again!” Once more the sheepish look.
I threw a charge of powder down the barrel, using the White Super-Chargers mounted in an elastic buttstock carrier on the rifle, then reversed the charger and pushed another 600 grain bullet down the barrel. I put on a #11 cap, using the brass capper slung around my neck, the whole process taking less than 20 seconds, thanks to the slip fit bullet. It still amazes me how quick these bullets reload, how accurate they are and how hard they hit.
We walked up on the bull to find him dead with legs collapsed under him. He had died almost instantly. We found out why as we cleaned him up, joined by the wrangler who brought up the pack horses. He had watched the whole performance through the spotting scope. The big 600 grain bullet had hit high on the ribs, the quartering away, uphill angle of the bull dropping the bullet cleanly through the huge arteries coming off the heart. He had lost his blood pressure almost instantly. Death was very nearly instantaneous.
We spent the evening and well into the dark quartering the moose and packing the meat back to our spike camp. A big grizzly showed on the skyline late in the twilight but fortunately did not join the party. We were up early the next morning, breakfasted, packed and saddled for a leisurely ride back to main camp. I looked forward to a pleasant ride. My hip was beginning to settle down a little. I hadn’t needed any Percocet during the night and had rested well.
So much for anticipations. The pleasant single foot of the day before on the way to spike camp turned into a jangling trot. All of a sudden everyone was ready for home, and in a hurry. It was impossible to hold the horses to a walk The string would walk rapidly, spread out a little , the faster walkers getting a little ahead, then those in the rear would break into a trot to keep up. The trot was deadly on my hip, barely tolerable. I found it easier to hold the horse to single foot until she was frantic to catch up, then kick her into a gallop. Galloping was easier than trotting with more rock than jounce. The trip out took 10 hours, we made it back in 7. Was I ever glad to see main camp.
We left the next day, flying hunters and meat to a larger lake than the one the main camp was on. A Beaver picked us up there and flew us back to an even larger lake where we met a big truck that took us back to Whitehorse. We had trailed a large flatbed trailer up the Alcan Hiway. We loaded it with meat and horns and headed back. 48 hours later we were home. I limped for 6 weeks, but limping is a lot better than sitting in the mud.